The primacy of the party

The Salvadoran electoral system is significantly tilted to give power to political parties and their leaderships over the roles of individual political leaders. This is particularly evident in the way that El Salvador elects deputies to the National Assembly. Each department within the country is allocated a certain number of seats in the 84 seat National Assembly according to its population. (In one criticized move, the election authorities did not reallocate those seats based on the results of the 2007 census for the 2009 elections, but continue to use the older allocation from the census taken during the 1990s). So, for example, the populous San Salvador department has 25 deputies and the less populous San Miguel department has 6 deputies.

Each seat in the department has a vote quota equal to the total number of votes cast in the department divided by the number of seats. To use round numbers, if 1 million votes were cast in San Salvador department to allocate 25 seats, the quota would be 40,000 (1 million / 25). A political party would then receive one seat in the National Assembly for each 40,000 votes it receives. So, in our example, if ARENA received 400,000 votes, it would receive 10 seats in the National Assembly from San Salvador.

The voters do not vote for individual deputies; they vote only for the political party. The ballot for deputies to the National Assembly is simply a series of party logos, and the voter marks the logo of the party for whom he wishes to elect deputies to the National Assembly.

The parties develop their slate of deputies for each department, and rank those deputies from 1 to the total number elected in the department (25 in San Salvador for example). If the FMLN gets sufficient votes for 12 seats, the top 12 names on its list become the deputies. Obviously if you are name number 25, it is highly unlikely you will become a deputy since that would require virtually every vote to be cast for your party. On the other hand, if you are name number 1 on the list of ARENA or the FMLN, you are almost guaranteed to get a seat in the National Assembly.

As a consequence, deputies to the National Assembly are entirely beholden to party leadership and not to the people who elected them. The party leadership decides who will be on the slate of candidates each three years and decides how to rank those candidates on the slate. No matter how good, or popular, or effective a legislator is, the deputy's future is nothing if he or she has offended the party leadership.

The party is also primary in local municipal elections. Although the focus is on the mayor, and the voters usually know the candidate being advanced for mayor for a particular party, the vote for a party also elects every member of the municipal council in a winner-take-all system. Thus, in San Salvador, with ARENA's victory on Sunday, all the former FMLN members of the municipal council will be replaced with ARENA members.

Perhaps the primacy of the party, and the lack of individual accountability to voters, leads to the consistent results in public opinion polls showing Salvadorans place their lowest levels of trust in the political parties and the National Assembly.


For a much more detailed description of El Salvador's national election system, see the article Political institutions in El Salvador: Proposals for reform to improve elections, transparency, and accountability by John Carey of Dartmouth. (Hat tip to David H. for pointing out this article to me).


El-Visitador said…
Congratulations on your discovery!

Alas!, the same electoral method is used in most of Europe and of course Latin America. These are the countries with a statutory legal system, i.e., descendants of the Napoleonic and therefore of the Roman code.

I agree that the system is undesirable. Witness the power it gives to the otherwise niche "green" parties of Europe.

Compare, instead, to the Common Law countries that use the simple plurality system: places like Canada, the U.S., the UK, etc.
David said…
To answer the question of one of your readers on how the residuals work:

If 100,000 people vote in a department with three deputies (of which there are quite a few in El Salvador), then the bar is set at 33,333. Thus, any party that get's that number automatically gets a deputy. Let's look at a rather common scenario in which you have three deputies from three different parties, but with widely disparate vote tallies for each.

FMLN: 47,000
ARENA: 34,000
PCN: 16,000
PDC: 3,000

FMLN gets one seat, and has a remainder (residual) of 13,667 votes.

ARENA gets one seat, with a remainder of 667 votes.

The third deputy spot then goes to the party with the highest number of residual votes -- which in this case is the PCN, with 16,000.

For illustration purposes, this is an extreme example, showing how, despite the incredibly disparity in votes received (a ratio of three to one, when comparing the FMLN to the PCN), the top three parties will get an equal number of delegates in the end!

This is precisely what the PCN has been particularly good at gaming the system in this way over the past two decades, and explains how they could get 11 deputies in these past elections
Anonymous said…
Thank you Tim and David for the information - I found it very helpful!
Tim said…
Thanks E-V and David. E-V's first link gives a good overview of the advantages and disadvantages of the proportional representation system used in El Salvador and elsewhere including its many variations.
Anonymous said…
no wonder the salvadoran legislative and judicial govts. are very inneficient and corrupt, and the electoral system explains, in part, why right wingers fear a red take over by the fmln if they win the executive...the congress, who are the law makers, are not accountable to the people but to their party masters. that sucks. i would really like to see a federalized el salvador, with departmental legislatures and gobernors as well as a more transparent electoral system, much like the way senators and representatives are elected in the united states.
Hey, El Salvadoran government & elites.

Can you stop sending your underclasses to the U.S. please? Our economy is broke, our society is reaching a breaking point, and El Salvador just wants MÁS, MÁS, MÁS!

At this point I'd rather have sympathetic Iraqi Kurds and even Sunnis & Shiites here. At least they're more honest about hating us for destabilizing their country. And the wound is more recent there, don't you think?

And they don't insult us with profanity-laden anti-American diatribes in Spanish. I don't understand Arabic or Kurdi, so it wouldn't bother me as much.
Anonymous said…
To the criticism that El Salvador's electoral system is arcane and anti-democratic, as opposed to "the simple plurality system" used in the U.S., I have two words:

"electoral college" !!
Anonymous said…
to sleepless in slumburbia...i envite you to join our cause then, and help us outright our corruption ridden country and be able to afford a life, here in el salvador, so many of our neighbors don't feel like their survival depends upon migrating to the usa, where we are not wanted. even if we are poor in el salvador, just as long as we don't starve and fear not being killed out in the streets by violent gangs, we'll be happy to remain here.
Anonymous said…
I am disturbed about how quickly Americans condemn democratic processes that differ from those in place in the U.S.

"El Visitador" holds up Canada as an example of good use of the simple plurality model. Here in Canada we call it "first past the post."

And in Canada,we recognize that there are significant drawbacks to this system.

In Canada, like El Salvador(and unlike the US) we usually have more than 2 parties involved. We frequently end up with a government that received less than a majority of the votes cast. Is this "democratic"?

The problems associated with determining the "will of the people" - the essence of democracy - are not simple.

I would appreciate a more in-depth analysis of the Salvadoran election system before I am ready to condemn it...
El-Visitador said…
«We frequently end up with a government that received less than a majority of the votes cast. Is this "democratic"?»

Hey, at least some Canucks got to vote for the less-than-majority winners!

In El Salvador, by contrast, no Assemblyman can truthfully say that she got any votes from anyone. It was her party that got the votes, and her party appointed her to her position.